#WITMonth: Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva: Earthly Signs Moscow Diaries 1917-22, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell.

It has just occurred to me that for someone who likes to read and write poetry so much, I should have read more poetry by women in translation this month (which would have been easier than novels too, and would have allowed me to feature more women). Ah, well, as they say in Romania – give the Romanian the mind in retrospect!

Tsvetaeva in 1917.

So let me try to make up for it a tiny bit by reviewing a poet’s diaries. Marina Tsvetaeva is often described as the most Russian of poets, even though she claimed her first language was German and it was German poetry she turned to most for inspiration. She was certainly one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century, and her life was full of political and personal drama, culminating in her suicide at the age of 48 during the Second World War, when practically her entire family was taken into labour camps by the Soviets. Here is a fragment from one of my favourite poems by her; entitled ‘Homesickness’, it encapsulates the feeling of loss, betrayal, anger of a writer in exile:

And I won’t be seduced by the thought of
my native language, its milky call.
How can it matter in what tongue I
am misunderstood by whoever I meet

(or by what readers, swallowing
newspring, squeezing for gossip?)
They all belong to the twentieth
century, and I am before time

stunned, like a long left
behind from an avenue of trees.
People are all the same to me, everything
is the same, and it may be the most

indifferent of all are these
signs and tokens which once were
native but the dates have been
rubbed out: the soul was born somewhere.

For my country has taken so little care
of me that even the sharpest spy could
go over my whole spirit and would
detect no native stain there.

Houses are alien, churches are empty
everything is the same:
But if by the side of the path one
particular bush rises
the rowanberry…

Moscow in 1917.

However, in these diaries of 1917-22, she is still in the country that will disenchant her and she comes across a very strong, resilient person and artist, who manages to keep her brain working and her pen flowing even when faced with revolution (she was from a wealthy family and lost everything), civil war (her side lost), her husband missing in war for three years, mind-numbing job, starvation (her younger daughter died of malnutrition) and a hostile environment around her. She makes me feel like a snowflake for ever complaining about hardship or not having time to create:

The brilliant advice of S. (the son of an artist). At some point during the winter, I complained (laughing, of course!) that I had absolutely no time to write. ‘I work till five, then there is the fire to light, then the wash, then bathing, then putting the children to bed.’

‘Write at night!’

In this there was: disdain for my body, trust of my spirit, a high mercilessness, which honored both S. and me.

The highest tribute of an artist  – to an artist.

She is almost comically inept in all practical matters, too outspoken for her own good, soldiering on, fierce, indomitable, at times desperate, but also abrasive and satirical. Her description of  her rival (although she would not deign to regard him as such), the Symbolist poet Valery Bryusov, for instance, in the section A Hero of Labor is utterly, delightfully wicked. She mocks his introduction to a poetry reading by nine women poets that he has organised:

Woman. Love. Passion. Woman, from the beginning of time, has known how to sing only of love and passion. The only passion of woman – is love. Every love of a woman – is passion. Outside of love, woman – in creative work, is nothing. Take passion away from woman… Woman… Love… Passion…

Typical communal flat kitchen in Soviet Russia, taken from Expatica website.

She describes sordid details of everyday life, almost too painful to contemplate, but also manages to rise above them with witty, acerbic observations:

There are almost no men: in the Revolution, as always, the weight of everyday life falls on women: previously in sheaves, now in sacks. (Everyday life is a sack: with holes. And you carry it anyway.)

Another young Marina Tsvetaeva picture, from Odessa Review.

She has no illusions about Communism although she doesn’t seem to have too much nostalgia about the past either. She may regret losing her old home, but on the whole:

The difference between the old and new orders:

The old order: ‘A soldier came by… We made pancakes… Our grandmother died.’

Soldiers still come, grandmothers die, only no one makes pancakes anymore.

I have long regretted that I am only able to read this poet in translation (I’d have learnt Russian for her and Dostoevsky alone), for most translators agree her voice is very difficult to capture. Yet Joseph Brodsky also has this interesting observation about her:

Tsvetaeva’s voice had the sound of something unfamiliar and frightening to the Russian ear: the unacceptability of the world. It was not the reaction of a revolutionary or a progressive demanding changes for the better, nor was it the conservatism or snobbery of an aristocrat who remembers better days. On the level of content, it was a question of the tragedy of existence in general, par excellence, outside a temporal context.

These diaries are such a wonderful insight into the mind and tormented life of a fascinating and controversial poet (I keep wondering if people would have been more lenient with her if she had been a tormented genius of a man). I filled them with pagemarkers and post-its, and will be returning to them again and again.

 

A lifetime condensed in a novel?

WearenotourselvesI recently read the ambitious debut novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ by Matthew Thomas. Ostensibly the story of a marriage and how it changes when the husband starts suffering from dementia, it is in fact nothing less than a portrayal of the American Dream after World War Two. So it’s the story of second-generation immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century in the United States, but also a family story, seen largely through the eyes of Eileen Tumulty, who marries scientist Ed Leary. But it’s about the whole context as well: the need to believe in the perfect family and home, the birth of consumer society and economic prosperity, the wish to rise above one’s station. It’s also about mortality, frailty, parents and children, dreams and how we don’t quite make them work for us, about everything under the sun. So, while I admire the author’s ambition, this is perhaps the flaw of the novel: it tries to tell too much, but is nevertheless beautifully written and with some truly touching moments.

I’m not normally a fan of sweeping family sagas, but this one is so tightly bound to a single point of view (Eileen’s), that there is no sense here of too many characters insufficiently connected, some of which you couldn’t care less about. The second point of view, that of Connell their son, comes to the forefront only in the last quarter or so of the book. There is a lot of summarising and skipping of years, a lot of trivia and minutiae, which were fine until I realised that after reading pretty solidly for several days, I had only reached the 30% or so mark of the book. It is a long book, and could perhaps have benefitted from some editing –  it does drag on a bit. There are perhaps a few too many instances and examples, and they get more and more gruelling as the husband’s condition deteriorates. But there are also moments of such insight and beauty, such sharp observation, where the characters really come alive with all their pain and hopes and disappointments laid bare. It’s worth wading through all the rest for these moments (and they are by no means rare). It doesn’t surprise me to discover that the author spent ten years writing, rewriting, refining this novel, and it is remarkably mature for a debut novel.

PrivatelifeIt got me wondering, however, what other books are of similar epic proportion, and have the ambition of ‘telling the story of a nation or a generation via the story of an individual’. And what came to mind was ‘Private Life’ by Jane Smiley. Margaret Mayfield is practically an old maid at the age of 27 in the last decade of the 19th century, so she considers herself lucky to make the ‘catch’ of Captain Andrew Early, naval officer and astronomer, the most famous man in their small Missouri town. They marry and she follows him to his observatory on the naval base just outside San Francisco. But her life turns out to be one long disappointment.

Interestingly enough, this book is not just about the ‘private’ life: it refers consistently to external events – the great earthquake in San Francisco, the First World War, Pearl Harbour, internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War etc. It also talks about a scientist husband with very strong opinions and a lack of empathy. However, the resilience of the couple in ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ stems from love and respect (however different it may be from the ideal of romantic love), while in ‘Private Life’ it seems to be more about a sense of duty and having no other choices. Of course, it’s a different time period: Margaret could be Eileen’s grandmother. Divorce initiated by women was highly unusual in those days (and we have the cautionary tale of a member of their knitting circle who does get a divorce and ‘disappears from view’).

From archives.gov.on.ca
From archives.gov.on.ca

What struck me in both books is just how tedious the minutiae of daily life is to all but those living it. I don’t think I have a particularly short attention span, and sure enough there are moments of universality (perhaps the contrast is all the sharper because of the endless piling on of small details), but is it really necessary? Could we have some judicious editing, please? Strangely enough, I love reading diaries (Pepys, Evelyn, Virginia Woolf), but diaries are not novels. Any pattern or shape emerges accidentally in diaries, but I like my novels to have form and coherence. I don’t want them to depict the trivia of everyday life, but rise above that.